Each time that I attend the United Nations representing PEN I hear the intention to include more women in decision making at all levels. As a member of a civil society non-governmental group — PEN International, I was glad to hear that the efforts by NGOS have in fact resulted in the parity of participation of women at very high levels at the UN. The secretary general, A. Guterres says that the organization will continue to focus on this. We can certainly see however, that at international meetings on finance and climate change, the country representatives are still all male.
The priority theme this year was : Achieve gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls in the context of climate change and environmental disaster. Coming as it did after two years of Covid impact, most meetings were virtual and the halls of the UN were bereft of the beauty we usually see as women from all over the world, in their stunning outfits that represent their nations with color and design, go to meetings. However, what was present was a striking exhibit of mannequins dressed in every type of clothing-from the most covered up to the most revealing and a large sign which asked: WHAT WERE YOU WEARING? This question, asked of women and girls who have been brave enough to talk about being aggressed sexually , was a striking and powerful entry into the topic of violence against women which has increased greatly in these years of the pandemic. Men were home, both men and women had lost access to work and women paid the price.
Not only has violence against women increased but child marriage is on the rise as families sell their daughters to be able to survive economically. Genital mutilation is on the rise and the number of girls who are not being sent to school or who are being obliged to drop out has increased enormously. An estimate was that 11 million girls may never go to school.
As our tech world has grown, online violence and hate speech against women has grown as well. Sadly, this is a reality that writers know well. People are suffering everywhere, but not equally. Women have lost ground in the world of work and in their daily lives and they are not being protected and supported by their governments at the local, state or national level. They have lost the most jobs and they are not regaining them.
Few programs address these losses. Women are already behind in obtaining jobs in the “green sector” but not enough are being trained in the areas of science and math so that they can successfully enter the areas of work in construction, manufacturing and energy production that are responding to climate change.
Women predominate in the “care industries” but are poorly paid, are overworked and the demands from Covid have put a major strain on their ability to work. They are on the forefront of all areas of care but at the bottom in terms of the pay scale, their working conditions and are not included in the discussions about the future. Climate change has impacted on agriculture and in so many parts of the world it is women who take care of agriculture. Climate change has meant they have lost their land, their income and their ability to provide for their families. Climate change has impacted more heavily on women and girls, on poor rural women, on indigenous women, on handicapped women.
Mental health issues have increased, access to family planning has been disrupted, HIV testing has been disrupted and sex workers, LGBT women are all more vulnerable to the social upheaval of war, climate change, Covid.
Representatives from UN Women: Mary Robinson-former president of Ireland, Michelle Bachelet as UNWomen Executive director and other high level UN representatives, all spoke of the need for young women to be included in the discussions on these topics in their own countries and at the UN. There has to be parity of representation on committees that discuss budgets and funding. There has to be a vision of a HUMAN RIGHTS ECONOMY that invests in health, housing, education, social justice. Women must be at the center of this SHECOVERY.
In speaking about the responsibilities of nations, the secretary general emphasized the need for the full participation in all areas. Civil society has been pushing for change and has made an impact over so many years. The legal conventions that are already in place such as those arrived at in Beijing, or the Paris Accord or the Equal Equality Forum must be rigorously enforced by the governments. They have signed on to them but have not truly implemented the full inclusion of women in all areas. We have seen a lot of “push back” from governments. The secretary general indicated, for example, that there is a need to reach out to religious leaders in the area of family law to push back on the male chauvinism that is presented as part of religious rules. He talked about “pushing back” on the” social push back” that has occurred in this time.
Climate change, sea water rising, islands and shore communities losing their homes, pollution, forests being decimated to plant crops that are not being used locally, indigenous communities being asked to reduce their consumption of produce in order to send it to richer areas, use of seemingly good, green strategies like wind which can in fact deprive communities of their land and ignore the historic and significant knowledge that indigenous peoples have about the natural world we live in. We heard from young women who felt that the UN had to do more to formally include youth in discussions.
Covid and climate changes have made inequalities and negative social situations much more visible. They have shown the unequal, negative impacts on the status of women. Yes, women are “resilient” and we heard plans that talked to new possibilities of inclusion. But women must first be able to participate equally in the work of PUSHING BACK and MOVING FORWARD. and determine their own paths to social change.
Elizabeth Starčević, Ph. D. Professor Emerita, City College of New York (CUNY) Former President of San Miguel PEN, Mexico.